Interview: Sons of the Void’s Luis Carlos Vaquero

Heralding from Madrid, Grogshot Games is hard at work on its fast-paced top-down space roguelite Sons of the Void, adding animation and gameplay elements, even as its Kickstarter climbs. NerdQ’s Erik Meyer chatted with Luis Carlos Vaquero, producer and programmer of SOTV and Co-Founder of Grogshot; are you ready to answer the call of the void?

Erik Meyer: Describe what gives a twin-stick shooter the optimal game feel, to your mind.  As you’ve added nuanced elements to SOTV (weapon upgrades, skills, movement animations, etc), what is your ideal user experience?

Luis Carlos Vaquero: Game feel is something I always find SO hard to describe. The fact that it’s something intangible is surely the main reason. You may have the looks, may have the content, but when playing the game, you feel there’s something missing. In our case, there are several things that improve that game feel, although there are still a lot of things we have yet to include apart from these; a smooth auto-aim system is KEY in Sons of the Void. You may not notice it’s there at first, but it certainly improves the game feel a lot when you play with a gamepad. You actually forget you’re aiming, which is what makes it awesome, so you can actually concentrate on other aspects of the game.

We’ve put a lot of our attention into the single most important core piece of our game, combat. You’re going to spend most of the times doing missions, so it must be good. It’s impressive how much little changes can affect the overall feel.

Let’s say you shoot an enemy; it might have a hit animation, letting you know it’s been hit. Starting with this basic stuff, you start adding on top of it. Now the enemy also flashes to white, drops blood splatters and makes a sound when hit, the bullet drops particles when it collides, add vibration and screen shake to it, etc. Certainly, there are a lot of tiny things going on at the same time. The hardest thing is to realize what goes well together. Luckily, it’s also easy to see when you’re lacking that good game feel.

EM: Bosses in games (and, by association, boss mechanics) give new, satisfying challenges to players and cap off dungeons. What is it about having a big, bad guy at the end, and how do you keep battles interesting?

LCV: Well, you keep them interesting exactly with that, different mechanics. In the case of Sons of the Void, our goal is to make every boss feel different. Think of ‘Titan Souls’, if you want to. You can see one in the trailer, but our goal is to have several per world you can visit. We want to bring some World of Warcraft kind of boss mechanics here but simplified, of course.

EM: I notice that even the buildings are animated, giving SOTV a living, cartoon-like aesthetic. Describe your decision-making process regarding art style and game assets; examples of game art on your dev blog show a bit of your journey, starting with drawings and working toward polished animations, but as the game takes on a high-tech organic feel, how are you keeping things consistent?

LCV: That’s pretty simple, actually. We go with whatever we do best. Daniel, our artist, is great with that serious cartoony artistic style, and he’s really comfortable doing it, and as we undoubtedly love the outcome, we settled on it. That’s exactly one of our primes: do whatever you do best. This ensures quality is also always present. Art consistency is also easy to maintain, as we only have one artist. He does concept art for something specific; we all decide on what we like the most and then approve it so he can start working on its final version. As it’s all on him, there’s no problem there.

As for animations, we mainly use 2D bone animation, but we’ve also done some traditional animation where it’s needed (i.e. explosions, smoke, perspective changes…) so we will use a mix of both in order to achieve that organic feel.

EM: In shooters, the designs of rooms, puzzles, and traps become integral to the universe you’re dropping players into. Can you speak to the design hurdles you’ve faced and the steps you’ve taken to balance new additions (while making sure to keep things balanced but not too predictable)?

LCV: This is, of course, a very important topic to us. Making procedural content fun and not predictable. We work, I believe, in a very similar way to how ‘Enter the Gungeon’ does: rooms are hand-made, but the layout is totally procedural. This makes it perfect. As rooms are created consistently, it’s really easy to make changes or create new ones. We also avoid typical procedural problems, for example, a room that makes no sense at all. Although rooms are hand-made, it doesn’t mean two rooms with the same base have to look the same. We’ve added some degree of controlled procedural content generation to it, too.

When doing missions in our game, advantages and disadvantages are also to be taken into account. A room full of traps might seem easy at first, but if you pull the ‘Oily Feet’ disadvantage and are sliding all over the place… well, it’s not so much.

EM: I’m curious about how Grogshot Games has gotten to where it is today. What have been the lessons learned by Learn Japanese with Tako and Clicker Pirates, and how has the team changed since its genesis?

LCV: It all started 5 years ago while we were still studying at the University. Julio and Alberto were working on ‘Learn Japanese with Tako’, and they needed some extra help with the programming. I joined them without a doubt, and we worked really hard on the game in our free time (which led to having no free time at all). It was a long project, which we developed during the last three years of University, but we’ve learned so much from it that it’s been totally worth it. We even won several awards with it.

From ‘Learn Japanese with Tako’ and ‘Clicker Pirates’, we’ve learned how important a good process is, so we took a step forward and I put hands into it, taking also the producer roll, as well as programming. A good process lets you finish on time, saves a lot of trouble, etc, however, a bad one… well, that’s a real pain I don’t want to experience again.

However, as a small-sized team (we’re just 4 members), the most important lesson we’ve learned is how much the team matters. Although there have been some points where we’ve been more or fewer people, the core of the team has always remained together since we began our journey. If there’s no synergy between team members, that project is mostly doomed. Unfortunately, we’ve known many teams that have gone through this.

EM: Describe your PR process leading to the Kickstarter effort, and describe the media/fan responses since the project went live. What do you see as the difficulties of presenting your work at this point in your development process, and what reactions have surprised you?

LCV: We’ve been showing our game since the very first days of its life, as you can see in our devlog. We’ve had a hard time with media, though. Although we’ve been covered by most of the Spanish gaming press (we’re Spanish), it’s really hard to get covered by international press. We’ve had no ‘luck’ with it so far.

On the other hand, people has been reacting really positively to it. The general opinion is that they love the ambiance and art style, as well as the concept we present with Sons of the Void.

EM: One thing that goes a long way toward a universe feeling unique versus generic is the look of the technology, clothing, and vehicles, along with backstory and artful dialogue; often, large portions of a project’s lore never make it into the final product, so describe your attention to the details of The Void, The Nomad, and everything in-between. For you, what has brought the world to life?

LCV: We liked this really cool concept about an ancient civilization and how they were so powerful that, inevitably, it led them to their own destruction. The Void is an artifact part of such a civilization. The Nomad is the one who finds it, and there is an instant mental connection between the two. The Nomad will do whatever it takes to help The Void and avoid this universal destruction The Void has foreseen, and that’s why he starts the Sons of the Void Society, whose purpose is, apparently, to restore the power of The Void to avoid this prophecy.

There’s only so much we can say about this and how everything is intertwined. The only thing we can safely say is that not everything is what it looks like.

EM: Finally, we’ll be hopping around space chasing cosmic power. What elements of the game do you hang your hat on, and what will give it replay value? To your view, what will be key to making everything feel ‘polished’?

LCV: We differ a lot from other Roguelites and games alike. Instead of longer runs, we have missions, which are shorter and different between them. Advantages and disadvantages also bring some fresh air to the core mechanics, changing them completely in some cases or making you have to adapt to different play styles.

Replayability is an easy one here. Finishing the game is the main goal, but it doesn’t mean it all ends there. Completionists will want to get those pesky weapons they couldn’t get, level all the characters up, etc. We would also want to implement a NewGame+ mode, where your story progress starts all over but you keep your characters’ progression but with a higher base difficulty. Extra content – as in end game content – also depends on the success of the game as a whole.

In case you missed it, here’s the trailer:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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